The ideal for TV drama over the last decade has been that it should be complex. They even have a phrase for it in TV circles: ‘lean forward’ programming, implying that if you’re on the edge of your sofa trying to work out what the hell is going on in a True Detective or a House of Cards, at least you’re fully engaged.
This has been all well and good for TV as high art but it’s presented a problem for Sunday nights. On Sunday night your brain is porridge. You’re about as likely to lean forward as you are to suggest that you and Auntie Jean discuss game theory. TV at this time is different – it needs to be comfort food, a goose-down onesie, a cuddle on the couch.
To occupy this neuroleptic bagging area the BBC have turned, once again, to Agatha Christie. Partners in Crime was an adaptation of a series of Christie novels that some people are claiming was always her finest work. I’d never heard of them, but then to me asking talking about Agatha Christie’s finest work is like discussing Jive Bunny’s best album.
Set in the 50s, Tommy and Tuppence (David Walliams and Jessica Raine) are a husband and wife pair of amateur sleuths, the one a busybody with a lust for John Buchan and Dorothy L Sayers, the other a hefty, inert beekeeper. There was absolutely no chemistry whatsoever between them, but rather than this being a comment on the casting of Raine and Walliams I like to think it was a comment on marriage in the fifties. Whatever type of comment it was, there appeared to be more likelihood of one or other of them making whoopy with their Golden Retriever than with each other.
Partners in Crime, as the tepid title suggests, was supposed to be utterly uncomplicated Sunday night TV. It was nice, whimsical, sweet looking, and required minimal attention as it just wafted along. So laden was it with exposition that it was perfectly possible to pop out for a bakewell slice, do the recycling, call your Mum and then come back – and still pick it up quicker than Jackanory.
It was meant to appeal to what I call the Keep Calm and Carry On-ers, which is to say those who hark back to some amorphous English country idyll of winning amateurism and afternoon tea that never really existed. But accidentally or otherwise, it had an edge – Walliams. Walliams, with that vast head and those pinprick eyes, is an actor so inscrutable that I genuinely have no idea if he is the greatest performer of his age or the greatest weirdo. But his very presence made Partners in Crime something strange. Come episode two next week I would be no more surprised if Tommy were to suddenly turn on Tuppence and bludgeon her to death with a meat tenderiser than if he were to take up embroidery. Oddly, then, a piece of television that was meant to be largely anodyne turned out to be slightly prickly – if, that is, you made the mistake of leaning forward and watching carefully.
At the other end of the dramatic spectrum was Life in Squares, a self-consciously intellectual piece with very little explanation or exposition and a lot of words. It was all about the Bloomsbury Group, which for me was a bad start – apart from Keynes and the odd dab of Virginia Woolf I’m marginally more interested in the philosophy of Agatha Christie. In that regard, Life in Squares brilliantly managed to evoke what life must have been like to have lived amongst that group. Which is to say dreary beyond belief. They lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles, as Dorothy Parker once put it. She neglected to mention that they also talked the hind legs off a donkey about aesthetics until there was really nothing left to do but to have sex with whomsoever you hadn’t already done it with up to that point.
This was a classic example of a radio play with pictures, an outpouring of wafty verbiage of the sort I haven’t heard since school, when class 8B and I collectively mutilated To the Lighthouse in Eng Lit over the course of an entire year of stupefying over-analysis. Its message – that dedication to art, intellectual honesty and moral relativism is all very well until your wife nobs off with your best friend – is one that has surely become less, not more interesting over time. History has shown that you can in fact be an artist without being an ass. Coming the night after Partners in Crime, I will admit that comparing a drama striving for meaning set against one happy to have none, I much preferred the latter.
Ripper Street is a 19th century drama but a very modern story. After two series nasty old Auntie Beeb condemned it to death for middling ratings, only for that knight in shining armour Amazon to save it from the gallows by coughing up for a third series. Not even Keynes could ever understand how TV financing works, but somehow Ripper Street has ended up back on BBC1 again. This suggests a brilliant new model for BBC finance that John Whittingdale will surely have noticed – let the BBC come up with all the good ideas and then get some Silicon Valley nabob obsessed with data-mining and subscriptions to pay for it.
Forgive my cynicism: the upshot is that Ripper Street lives to rip again. Should it have been resuscitated? Well, on the basis that no other drama would offer up a line of dialogue as beautifully incomprehensible as “indeed we are yet so in the certain knowledge of their defaulting thereon,” the answer is a definitive yes.
Quite what this would have meant thereon to Amazon’s American punters I have no idea, and I’m still not sure why Ripper Street was chosen for resurrection from all the other shortlived dramas that could have got the Bobby Ewing treatment, but we have at least learnt that the Amazon dollars haven’t stuffed it up – Ripper Street was exactly as it was before, all hokum, whiskers and Matthew Macfadyen being fantastically grumpy. This bodes well: if any billionaire American Internet company owners are reading, may I heartily recommend revivals for The Hour, In the Flesh, Rufus Sewell as Zen and a much-talked about though never greenlit second series of State of Play?